By Barb Ryan, Middle School English Teacher

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert
Grades 5-12, Lexile GN630

What midcentury-born girl did not grow up admiring Helen Keller and her feisty teacher Annie Sullivan? From an adult perspective, the allure is apparent: a girl without her vital senses of sight and hearing becomes formally educated and eventually beloved by people throughout the world. My generation admired her because of the difficulty we all experienced using our own voices to speak about the things we could see and hear in the world.

A generation later, Helen Keller is not the icon she once was. This graphic novel, Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, is a wonderful introduction to Helen Keller’s life with “Teacher.” How fitting that just as Helen struggled with the loss of her senses, the book bringing her story to a new generation uses a multimodal technique—print and graphics—to present the narrative of her early life with Annie Sullivan.Anne Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

This graphic novel focuses on the early education of Helen, and the beginning of her lifelong relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The arrival of Annie in Helen’s life may be well known, but the story of Annie’s personal struggles is usually overshadowed by the phenomenal feats she inspired Helen to achieve. This book tells how Annie grew up as an orphan living in the poorhouse, and how the filth and disease there caused her to painfully lose almost all of her eyesight. Despite her agonizing condition, Annie pursued an education and career in helping children with special needs.

Annie arrived in Helen’s life just as she was becoming too much for her parents to handle. Annie broke through the darkness and reached into Helen’s mind. As Annie taught her about the world, words and communication—she sparked a desire to know in the young girl.

As Helen’s love for learning grew, Annie found deep satisfaction in her part of the transformation that was occurring. She pushed Helen, and herself, to the limits, studying for long hours, exhausting them both. Due to their hard work, Helen was accepted into the same prestigious school Annie Sullivan attended, Perkins Institute for the Blind. It was there, with Annie, that Helen was first formally educated; she learned Braille and even the languages of French and Greek. It was also at the Perkins Institute that Helen was accused of plagiarism for a short story she had written. This was a blow from which neither Helen nor Annie would soon recover. The school board asked them to leave; they were crushed, but they had each other. The book stops here, but as readers probably know, both women went on to achieve greatness in their lives. This book is as much Annie’s story as Helen’s; both suffered great losses and hardships, but found friendship that surpassed life’s difficulties.

Annie and Helen’s story remains relevant to today’s students because of this demonstration of what can be achieved through friendship, determination and perseverance. Students who struggle with school or relationships can understand the trials of both Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, and use them to be inspired to endure, proceed and succeed.

Just as young Helen fought the unknown, striving readers combat texts and books unaware of the worlds of discovery ahead of them. Graphic novels can help striving readers become successful. The format prods the reader to infer, draw conclusions, predict and connect. The reading experience increases in depth and complexity as the reader analyzes the colors featured in the panels, the body language and facial expressions of the characters and the background details, all of which scaffold the storytelling.

Graphic novels have an important place on the literary shelf because they demand a layered reading experience in an unconventional way, offering all students a chance to achieve higher comprehension. Just as Annie Sullivan used creative teaching methods to break through Helen Keller’s walls, so to the graphic novel uses multiple levels to break through to our struggling and reluctant readers.


Barb Ryan is a middle school English and Reading Teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows School in South St. Louis. She absolutely loves to read and always has at least three books going at once! Her favorite book as a child was A Lantern in her Hand by Beth Streeter Aldrich–thus began her love of reading and of women’s history. Her current reading selections are Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew. Her main goal as a reading teacher is to have her students catch the reading bug, too!